United States Literature Between Realism and Naturalism

The Frontier

With the exception of Whitman’s poetry and some compositions by Melville, the trauma of the Civil War on contemporary American literature did not have, directly, great resonance, not even in those who, like S. Lanier, the ‘first’ Southern poet and fighter among the Confederate ranks, he would later devote his interests mainly to music. On the literary level, on the other hand, the experience of expansion towards the West was of a completely different significance, which in the second half of the nineteenth century inspired historians, novelists and important humorists, such as the journalist and writer of New York origin FB Harte, author, among other things, of The luck of Roaring camp and other sketches (1870), a collection of stories from the West which ensured him great success. ● Also as a humorist of the Frontier, M. Twain made his debut, when, in 1865, his compelling short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County appeared. Among the major storytellers of the late nineteenth century, Twain gained immense popularity with novels such as The adventures of Tom Sawyer (1867) and The prince and the pauper (1882), as well as ‘travel reports’ such as The innocents abroad (1869) and Roughing it (1872), in which linguistic transgression and formal innovation come together in a frank and irrepressible comedy. Great orator, appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic, in the following years his imagination gradually became cloaked in pessimism, from which one of his major novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), was not immune, and which permeates other great works, such as A Connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s court (1889) and The tragedy of pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Sharpened by various personal tragedies, this vein is strengthened, resulting in frequent moralistic accesses, in recent writings, including The man that currupted Hadleyburg (1900), the philosophical What is man? (1906) and the unfinished The Mysterious Stranger (posthumously, 1916).


An important aspect of the realist movement is also the spread of a regionalism linked to the cultural and linguistic specificity of rural areas, generally without developed urban centers, in which the influence of traditions remains stronger. The stories of Uncle Remus: his songs and his sayings (1881) are linked to a sweetened and romantic vision of the South, the first collection of a very successful series by JC Harris, in which the virtuosically reconstructed language of black slaves, with which they express themselves even the animal figures that populate the saga become the expressive means of a false reinterpretation of the great oral tradition of the plantation. That same physical environment is the background to Uncle Tom’s cabin (1852), a novel of little literary value but of great political impact with which, on the eve of the civil war, H. Stowe gives new impetus to the abolitionist cause. A local colorist like GW Cable, author of novels and short stories (Old creole days, 1879) much appreciated by M. Twain, and a writer like K. Chopin, whose short novel The awakening (1899), the story of the symbolic awakening of a female identity historically annulled by conventions, has now obtained that recognition that a long period of censorship had denied it. ● The refined language of SH Jewett is inspired by a completely different environment, such as Maine, who alternates between sketches and stories, as in her major novel The country of the pointed firs (1896), dramatic unknown to many practitioners of the local color.

Genteel tradition

Central personality of American realism, WD Howells established himself as a journalist to later become one of the most influential narrator and critic of the turn of the century. Supporter of Lincoln, who will appoint him consul in Venice (1861-65), is among the initiators, in the 1870s, of the so-called genteel tradition, of that ‘courteous’ novel in which the removal of the detrimental aspects of reality is justified on the basis of the didactic intent that informs the work. Radically opposed to Romanticism, Howells subsequently arrives at a narrative of more sincere social commitment which, as evidenced by his major novels, from A mod; ern instance (1882), to The rise of Silas Lapham (1885), to A hazard of new fortunes (1890), makes the clash between morality and interest that characterizes the America of the golden age its central motif. ● If this fold of Howells’ narrative directly anticipates the developments of the naturalist novel, it is above all in the wake of the courtly tradition that, in those same years, is grafted the work of innovation of narrative structures carried out by a leader of realism such as H. James. Strongly attracted by Hawthorne’s vision (to whom he will dedicate an important critical essay in 1879) and an attentive lover of the work of H. de Balzac, G. Flaubert and I. Turgenev, from the debut stories James he elects the psychological investigation of the character as the privileged nucleus of a research conducted mainly against the background of a bourgeois society undermined by decay. Settled permanently in London in 1876, he reached artistic maturity with The portrait of a lady (1881), a novel in which the relationship between the Old and the New world, already experienced in The Amer; ican (1877), Daisy Miller (1879) and Wash ; ington Square (1880), avails himself of fully accomplished techniques. Inner excavation, complex architecture of the plot, refinement of the narrator’s function, insistent use of the symbol: these are the technical knots on which James’s novel will continue in subsequent years to build itself as an art form, along a path that, through The Bostonians (1886), The Aspern papers (1888), What Maisie knew (1897), The turn of the screw (1898), it will lead to the complex and rarefied writing of the three masterpieces of the major phase: The wings of the dove (1902), The ambassadors (1903), The golden bowl (1904). Addressed with insistence as the theme of novels and short stories, often dominated by unusual fantastic elements (The private life, The lesson of the master, The fig; ure in the carpet), his work as an artist will find a systematic and illuminating outlet in the dense prefaces affixed to the definitive edition of his work, Novels and tales by Henry James (1907-09). ● Close to James’ interests, and partly to his style, is the fiction of E. Wharton, also transplanted to Europe from his native New York, a city that nevertheless reappears, a background distorted in physical and moral traits by the invasion of new rich, in the major novels, The house of mirth (1905), The custom of the country (1913) and The age of innocence (1920). Finally, other relevant examples of feminine writing, suspended between regionalism and courtly tradition, are that of the virginiana E. Glasgow, whose novel Barren Ground (1925) revolves around a memorable portrait of a heroine, and that of WS Cather, who in O pioneers! (1913) and in My Antonia (1918) he uses the original Nebraska as a scenario on which female protagonists move similar, in character, to some Jamesian models.


Characterized by a more marked attention to social dynamics and conflicts, naturalism counts among its first exponents H. Garland, who in the collection of stories Main-traveled roads (1891) makes the squalid living conditions of the agricultural laborers of the West the central motif of an unprecedented, harsh realism. The case of S. Crane is different, at least in part, which from the social Darwinism of the short novel Maggie: a girl of the streets (1893), set in the Bowery of New York, will move on to a novel on the civil war, The red badge of courage (1895), in which the traumatic experience of conflict, filtered through the ingenuity of the young protagonist, is rendered without rhetorical subsidence, in all its crudeness. Paradigmatic model of a naturalism derived from the work of É. Zola is McTeague (1899), novel with which F. Norris he investigates, not without a taste for the sensational which limits the scope of his writing, into processes of psychophysical degeneration analogous to those already described by RL Stevenson in his Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde. ● If with the novels of A. Cahan, the progenitor of Jewish-American writers, the New York ghetto is firmly back in the foreground, in the adventures of the more famous and eclectic J. London, it is often the open and primordial spaces that are the background (as in the mighty A call of the wild, 1903) to a struggle for survival that unites everyone, according to a deterministic perspective that will then lead to the negative utopia of The iron heel (1908) and to Martin’s tragic portrait of an artist Eden (1909). ● But he’s with T. Dreiser that American naturalism finds its most complete and consistent voice, thanks to the vigor with which, in Sister Carrie (1900) and in An American tragedy (1925), he interprets the devastating effects, in terms of altering consciences, which phenomena such as urbanization and consumerism have created over the years between the two centuries. ● Due to the direct impact that Darwin’s evolutionary theories have had on his writing, HB Adams, friend and contemporary of H. James, should also be mentioned among the naturalists, who in the autobiographical to propose, not without a vein of latent pessimism, a dynamic vision of history that highlights the great unease in which the intellectual of the beginning of the century struggles.

United States Literature Between Realism and Naturalism